On Student protests and academic freedom

by Eric Schliesser on June 11, 2024

In an earlier post (here), prompted by some writings by Jacob T. Levy, I defended the idea that student protests can fall under academic freedom. My argument for this starts from the fact that while many universities can have mission specific interpretations of the latitude and constraints on how they interpret academic freedom (non-trivially constrained also by local legal context), all universities share a mission in being committed to knowledge discovery, knowledge transmission, and preservation of knowledge.

That being so, student protests can play a two-fold role in furthering this mission in light of scarce resources (not the least time): first, they are a means of articulating what is worthy of academic attention and what ought to be the focus on discovery. Most student protests fit easily under this role. This fits quite naturally with Max Weber’s account of how to think about the philosophy of social science and the vocation of a scientist. Second, student protests can themselves be seen as experiments in living and as such they can have epistemic benefits to the academic community, and wider society. I won’t repeat the argument for these points here, but will modestly develop them below.

If this much is correct, then universities have a defeasible obligation to be respectful of students protests and, perhaps, even to facilitate student protests in light of their academic mission. It’s defeasible because the epistemic benefits of student protests may come in conflict with other projects on campus with non-trivial and potentially much higher epistemic benefits—say research labs or regular instruction. It’s also defeasible because some protests may be prima facie at odds with the particular mission of the university as such—in this way academic freedom is very unlike freedom of speech! So, ideally, a code that governs student conduct on campus recognizes the need to accommodate the possibility of student protests (without trying to regulate it in fine detail).

In a recent unpublished paper she kindly shared with me, the distinguished Canadian scholar, Shannon Dea (who also is a Dean now), reminded me that arguably, at The University of Chicago, the famous (1967) Kalven report already comes close to treating student protests as a feature of or at least allied to academic freedom. Let me quote the crucial passage from the report while adding some highlights:

The neutrality of the university as an institution arises then not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity. It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints. And this neutrality as an institution has its complement in the fullest freedom for its faculty and students as individuals to participate in political action and social protest. It finds its complement, too, in the obligation of the university to provide a forum for the most searching and candid discussion of public issues.

I doubt the natural reading of this passage is to claim that social protests are a part of academic freedom and, therefore, welcome on campus. The more likely interpretation is that the university won’t punish students for engaging in protests as such. For, the obligation to provide a forum for discussion is not the same as providing a forum for protest. But, the Kalven report can be made compatible with my view if, as I have suggested, protests are themselves at least sometimes a form of “free inquiry” (at least in part).

What’s nice about this is that the Kalven report starts from a premise I reject (“the neutrality of the university as an institution”) and yet can be shown to reach similar conclusion(s). I would claim Kalven’s stance is illiberal, when uniformly adopted as a kind of ‘best practice,’ because it prevents universities from having distinct corporate missions and homogenizes universities unnecessarily. Obviously, in some juridical contexts — where there are only state funded and regulated universities — this commitment may be required, but it is odd to see it embraced by the great and wealthy private universities of our time. If I understand Shannon Dea correctly she thinks Kalven’s neutral stance is actually impossible. (I am sympathetic to that position.)

As an aside, professors Noah Feldman and Alison Simmons, while presenting Harvard University’s official guidance for a policy on university statements in the New York Times, point out that Harvard’s policy also explicitly rejects Kalven’s premise (despite being pragmatically not far from it in practice):

Rather, our policy commits the university to an important set of values that drive the intellectual pursuit of truth: open inquiry, reasoned debate, divergent viewpoints and expertise. An institution committed to these values isn’t neutral, and shouldn’t be.New York Times, May 28, 2024.

While I suspect that all the authors/signers of the Kalven report would have thought they are also committed to the first quoted sentence. What’s important about the second sentence, is that it makes clear that academic speech is a distinct kind of activity imposing constraints on speech. Non-trivially, it also means that a lot of academic speech is rule-governed. And that there are distinct disciplinary variants and functions (as I have also argued); the Harvard report partially recognizes this explicitly when it notes that different fields “translate knowledge into action through reports, white papers, and client representation.”

I do want to make two observations pertinent to my present interest in the intellectual role of student protests on campus. First, unlike Kalven, Harvard’s report is silent on protests. Second, Harvard’s approach pretends that the values that drive the intellectual pursuit of truth are, as it were, homogeneous at some level of generality and not mission specific. I doubt this can be maintained once scrutinized. So, for example, in medicine and many areas of engineering universities (and grant agencies) in some countries routinely require adherence to ethical guidelines in research or ethical codes of conduct. It’s not obvious how a university can take a stand on this in Harvard’s approach going forward. These guidelines and codes appeal to more substantive values.

Be that as it may, if student protests fall under academic freedom, it doesn’t follow anything goes. My colleague, the political scientist Joost Berkhout, prompted me to reflect on this. On his view, which I will state informally with a nod to Hohfeld’s famous schema, a claim to academic freedom also involves obligations to upholding its standards. If we don’t take this too strictly or as a box-ticking exercise — since it’s important to insist that academic freedom is intrinsic to the distinct corporate mission of the university (rather than juridical in character) — this is a useful way of thinking.

A few things follow from Berkhout’s observation. First, student protestors need to articulate a shared (or overlapping) platform or set of demands/principles so that it is clear what they stand for/against and whether the cause they support is, roughly, not at odds with the corporate mission of the university. (Obviously, some such missions are explicitly revisable, and these may well welcome challenges to its core identity—others less so.) This means that it may be quite reasonable for some protests to be wholly unwelcome on some campuses. (Again, this is very different from freedom of speech.) And that sometimes administrators may prohibit a protest provisionally until there is a clear enough platform.

For example, a platform that demands divestment from an activity or financial investment may be usefully construed as a demand for a university to live up to its existing mission or to change the mission in some way. If the former, this is very worthy of the attention of the academic community; if the latter then it really depends on local circumstances if that’s to be welcomed or not. (In some places, one may well come to the conclusion that it does not fall under academic freedom, but does fall under freedom of speech, or vice versa. Contextual judgment cannot be ruled out.)

Another reason why a shared platform or shared principles/demands is needed is that it helps justify the protest as a form of (potentially rumbunctious) academic speech. This allows one to distinguish a protest from a party and a riot. And, more subtly, it also usefully helps distinguishes the manner by which student protestors communicate their speech at least in part from its content. (I qualify this below.) In particular, it also means that not anything is permitted: for example, physical threats to other members on campus, permanent property damage (especially to the library, labs, and teaching facilities), disruption of other member’s research and teaching are hard boundaries on the manner of protesting in an academic context. This is not hypothetical: when I was student back in the day protestors against animal testing would sometimes engage in property damage of medical labs, and elsewhere there have been repeated cases of threats toward researchers.

Obviously, some student protests are not really about challenging what is worthy of academic attention and what ought to be the focus on discovery. Much is expressive in different ways say, in order to express moral indignation or social solidarity. But functionally these do often communicate to other members of the academic community what is worthy of attention and that the topic/issue may require more research or education.

In addition, if protests are expressive in character they may well play the role of an experiment in living; that is, as a way in which an academic community and the wider society learns what is valuable as such. On campuses where citizenship, service, and democracy are core values, this may well be intrinsic to the academic enterprise. Nearly everyone who has participated in student movements will recall intense debates about means and ends in light of the most fundamental political practices alongside massive amounts of learning. Of course, protests that are simultaneously experiments in living may be a messy process — so very unlike a controlled lab/field experiment — and presumably often not very successful, but that’s a feature and not a bug of social experimentation.

Crucially, here the manner of protesting may well be what’s instructive; sit-ins, teach-ins, and encampments are also ways of exploring ways of communal living. What’s especially nice about teach-ins is that they also may advance the mission of the university in the most direct ways. They are then a form of instruction, and they often provide a perspective that risks being marginalized otherwise. Obviously, in practice, teach-ins often have a slanted agenda (students rarely invite intellectual opponents of their platform into a teach-in), so the epistemic signal they provide could be rather weak.

In some academic campuses (the California UC system) and cultures (say France) student activism is already highly ritualized. By this I mean that student and campus (and political) authorities are quite familiar with each other’s boundaries and practices. In others, academic freedom as such may well be under-acknowledged or undervalued by all parties involved. (I started writing on academic freedom when I realized how rarely Dutch academic authorities understood or reflected on it.) So, I really don’t mean this to be thought of necessary or possible in all academic contexts.

However, in so far as student protests do fall under academic freedom it also means that by itself it isn’t a route to, say, rioting (although it may be part of the French ritual) and vandalism. In particular, it means that non-protestors may well legitimately ask for a list of demands or a platform and evaluate it in light of their expertise and their understanding of the academic mission. It may also mean that a wider academic community may come to conclude that a particular student protest is or has become incompatible with its academic values.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }


someone who remembers that student protest movements have been correct in every circumstance for the last 50 years of american life 06.11.24 at 6:01 pm

good analysis. who, ultimately, has a better post-ww2 track record on “taking the position that turns out to be spike-the-football correct” than american college students who protest a thing? any university with a history department should be able to figure out that if there’s a sizeable american college student protest movement that they’re likely just ahead of the curve. sure as hell they got it right when the rest of the country was crouched, moaning, faces inches away from a car commercial computer graphic of a tank smashing an iraqi toddler while an eagle screams.

the point about teach-ins is excellent; i would add that in the current anti-genocide encampments there are many educational elements – book sharing via an encampment library is common, as is sharing stories from palestinian students who fled the area for a new life. jewish students who are for peace have also been able to express their fears and experiences in these encampments, suggest measures to guard against anti-semitism and are a key element of many encampment organization groups.


Harry 06.11.24 at 7:45 pm

Isn’t the neutrality argument a bit of a red herring? Nobody believes the university is, should be, or could be neutral all the way down. The level of abstraction at which Feldman and Simmons claim the university is not neutral is a different level of abstraction at which Kalven etc think is is/should be neutral. We shouldn’t be on the side of the Democrats or the Republicans or Israel or Hamas, because at that level we are neutral; and we’re neutral at that level because we are not neutral at the more fundamental level.

Universities attended by upper middle class students in western democracies typically do facilitate student protest. But: in the case of the recent protests campuses have varied a great deal in what they have tolerated. As far as I can tell most campuses have been pretty hands off, and others have really screwed up (UCLA is the primary case here, where it seems to me the administration was really caught on the hop). That said: refraining from enforcing reasonable rules is not always the right way to facilitate protest. I organized a lot of protests as a student. Our administration was not at all friendly and we knew that — and, in fact, I appreciated it. Violating rules that you know will be enforced is itself a tactic and students need to be provided with that constraint/opportunity. Too benevolent an attitude is patronizing and actually disabling.


Eric Schliesser 06.11.24 at 7:58 pm

It seems lot of people believe in neutrality as an ideal even if at different levels. But for my main argument it can be set aside.


Gareth Richard Samuel Wilson 06.12.24 at 3:05 am

“any university with a history department should be able to figure out that if there’s a sizeable american college student protest movement that they’re likely just ahead of the curve. ”
Do you count the segregationists at the University of Mississippi as a “college student protest”? If not, why not?


MFB 06.12.24 at 9:11 am

Fair question from Wilson.

Firstly, were the heavily-armed rioters at U Miss actually students? Obviously, for instance, General Walker was not a student. If not, then they were surely not a college student protest.

However, obviously student can possibly be wrong, like everybody else. So the critique of the absolutism of the first response does seem partly justified. The response did, however, say “likely” just ahead of the curve, and this seems a fairly accurate assessment.


M Caswell 06.12.24 at 5:17 pm

I wonder about the relative decline of the term ‘demonstration.’ Except in the weak sense of expressing a ‘no’ to something, a demonstration need not be what we nowadays call a ‘protest,’ since it need not significantly disrupt any practice or violate any rule.

There would be something contradictory and infantilizing, I think, about ‘supporting protest’ by both establishing rules or norms and encouraging their violation. On the other hand, the possible benefits of protests you cite could be gained by perfectly obedient demonstrations– they could even be required for course credit.

Still, I doubt the political uses of speech seen in demos– sloganeering, propaganda (even in the good sense), ideologicalization– has real educational value. I’d rather try to displace such attractions with conversation and inquiry.


someone who remembers the college students killed in mississippi for helping people register to vote 06.12.24 at 10:38 pm

@gareth – the “sizeable” and “american” in my comment disqualify the umiss student protests/battle of oxford before we even get there – and i would add that the resistance in that case primarily consisted of militia actions, aided by armed groups from around the region organized by the local authorities, the citizen’s councils and even chapters of the ku klux klan. when a military guy is getting on the radio and screaming for ten thousand armed men to come to campus, and around three thousand oblige, i am comfortable in not classifying it in the same category as a primarily student-driven protest.


PatinIowa 06.12.24 at 10:59 pm

In reading around on this, some things emerged.

The initial crowd that gathered to oppose Meredith’s admission to U of Mississippi was composed of students. The Mississippi Highway Patrol was keeping everyone but students and faculty off-campus. Supposedly.

The crowd swelled as Mississipians rallied to the cause of segregation, including, among others, General Walker. Either the Highway Patrol was overwhelmed or, well, look at what happened next.

Eventually, State Senator George Yarbrough, subbing for the governor on the scene, withdrew the Highway Patrol, saying to the feds, “You have occupied this university, and now you can have it.” There were apparently Highway Patrolmen who had to be persuaded not to join the members of the crowd shooting at the U.S. Marshalls.

I think it’s fair to say that UMiss students on the scene were violent, as were their allies.

What’s striking to me is that the attitude of local law enforcement toward the student rioters–as well as the off campus rioters–doesn’t at all resemble what the NYPD or LAPD got up to. Wonder why that might be.


John Q 06.13.24 at 2:14 am

To the extent that the university is envisaged as a community where students both live and work, the right to protest on campus follows from the general right of citizens to protest. That right is, of course, contested everywhere and sometimes denied outright.


Gareth Richard Samuel Wilson 06.13.24 at 2:23 am

A third of the people arrested in the Mississippi University riot were students, and aside from the violence there were boycotts of Meredith’s classes. Sounds like a student protest movement to me.


SamChevre 06.13.24 at 1:24 pm

For a more recent college protest of questionable rightness, the infamous “No means Yes…” protest at Yale might be worth considering.

In general, I think current standards for acceptable protests on college campuses are generally terrible–hostile environment harassment law is just not a good idea anywhere, but particularly inappropriate in a university context. I’m encouraged to see this more widely recognized – so far, it’s been obscured by very selective enforcement. (A non-selective reading would put hostility to Catholicism in the same category as hostility to African-Americans, which doesn’t seem likely to be compatible with any sort of in-depth study of history or philosophy.)


somebody who remembers the role of the cops in the umiss action 06.13.24 at 2:31 pm

@gareth – easier to arrest the students than the three thousand armed guys who rolled up. the kkk walked too! but sure, okay, you found one (1) student action at one (1) university on the wrong side of history, congrats. not what i would call “sizeable” or “american” in the national sense, and since thats the best you got i think my original statement holds up

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